If Natsume Yuujincho is about anything in particular, it’s an all-encompassing kindness towards other people as well as the world at large, in a very ecological sense. But that shouldn’t come as a surprise. Iyashikei as a whole is almost defined by its relative lack of antagonistic forces, a decentering of conflict, something which would seem antithetical to the very structure of narrative. Yet oddly it works for this oh-so-particular genre. Natsume, in focusing on youkai, accomplishes what other iyashikei achieve through other means: an elaboration of the world as living, equally important to human life itself and necessarily tied up with that human life. It presents harmony as the utmost ideal, something which takes work but is more than worth the payoff. In a sense, it’s a near-perfect series in the way it engages with this. But that brings us to an important question. Why is it that only series widely recognized as “good” count as iyashikei?
Iyashikei, as the name implies, is a genre which must heal its viewers in order to count as such. An almost necessary result of this is that any given iyashikei work can only be seen as one if a sufficient number of its watchers feel soothed, ie, if they think it’s good. In matter of fact, this is a strange means by which to define a genre. Romance anime don’t have to cause stirs in the hearts of watchers in order to count as such, nor do action works require anything approaching impressive fight sequences. The only remotely similar example in more common genres is horror, and yet even then it’s well-known that there’s horror which fails to cause any fear or unease — it’s just seen as bad.
Things are not the same for iyashikei like Natsume Yuujinchou. When a work would theoretically fit under its banner, and yet genre fans tend to find it more boring than relaxing, it’s simply not given the name, as seen in cases like Glasslip. Of course, all iyashikei anime are widely regarded as boring by much of the anime-viewing public, but that’s just another part of what makes iyashikei such an interesting case study: its parameters are largely defined by its particular niche audience, rather than a broader community consensus. Again, though, this is strange. Can we really claim that there’s a genre whose works are good by default, simply as a result of being in a category which implies some degree of quality? Iyashikei may remain a useful term under that framework, but can we really call it a genre as such?
Well, in the classical sense it’s obviously not a genre, merely a subgenre, perhaps of the drama. However, genres in mass culture typically refer to clusters of similar works, with related priorities and origins. Under this standard, iyashikei are clearly deserving of the title. They originate from a particular set of conditions opened up by the Japanese bubble burst, speaking to a desire for a communal, ecologically-focused life at a time where climate collapse comes ever closer. Two of its seminal works, Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou and Aria, clearly take place after some sort of environmental catastrophe, with one leading to a slow end for humanity while the other sees our technological prowess merge with a renewed appreciation for nature into a sort of bucolic techno-utopianism. Series like Natsume draw far more heavily on the aesthetics and attitudes of the past rather than the future, but they still highlight these same anxieties and themes, employing those same formal techniques to accomplish them: wide sweeping shots of the environment and careful images of life moving as it always does.
At the same time I have to ask myself if this is OK. Let’s say, for a moment, that this was a worse series. Let’s pretend Natsume, rather than a kind boy who tries his best to do right by others while moving with the flow was a bit of a jerk who had to be goaded into acting justly, something which would hurt the focus on kindness and reciprocal altruism. Let’s also assume that the environment was simply less appealing, giving the viewer no reason to care about whether or not it’s in harmony. Would this still be iyashikei? I suspect it wouldn’t be considered as such, in spite of no change in the narrative structure or formal elements necessary to iyashikei, only the quality with which these elements are executed. This, I believe, brings us to a large problem, one we must attempt to address if we’re to discuss works of this ilk. Iyashieki is a genre defined by the skill of its craft, because that skill is necessary to effectively convey the formal elements with which the genre is associated. But this simply isn’t how genres work. Mecha may fundamentally be tied up with the industrial reproduction of the body, but it doesn’t have to have an interesting take on that front. Cyberpunk can situate its characters in an extra-late capitalism without saying anything of value on the topic. Why does iyashikei have to effectively demonstrate an understanding of how people are part of their environments while also relaxing its viewers?
I have no interest in speaking for the Japanese viewers who came up with iyashikei as a genre term. I’ve always identified as a lover of iyashikei, but watching Natsume has forced me to reconsider it as a label. I’m comfortable with its continued existence, but it strikes me that, perhaps, we need to broaden the definition. Works that aim to relax viewers should probably count, just as works which aim to scare viewers are considered horror. Otherwise, iyashikei will remain a quality label, rather than a genre one.